"Sweet native stream," Warton calls the Loddon, and that is just the association one familiar with its meads and wooded banks would bear with him in a cherished corner of memory. For the ordinary angler perhaps the river is a trifle too much with "alders crown'd." On the contrary, to the person who can command the use of a boat, and drop down upon the lazy current with a long line ahead of him, those dense defences of the bank become conservators of sport. They are better than a keeper, for they are always there, and cannot by any bribe be seduced from their duty. And more than any other tree the alder is the familiar companion of the angler. Upon some rivers the willow would contest the position, perhaps, but Fate demands that it should run to pollard, and so get too high up in the world to be a close companion to man.
We always make friends with the somewhat prosaic and even sombre alder, and, in return, it always has something to show us. All through the autumn and winter it makes as goodly a display as it can with its long barren catkins; in the spring it is thick with the queer black little husks; and in the summer and autumn its defects of shape in the matter of branches are hidden by close, dark, glossy leaves, which sturdily hold on when others have been snatched and scattered. And does not an old poet ascribe to our alder the quality of protector to other growths?
The alder, whose fat shadow nourisheth— Each plant set neere to him long flourisheth.
But it is interesting to remember that a still older poet had his eye on the alder, and it is a pretty conceit in which Virgil fixes upon its wood as the origin of shipbuilding. The timber is so easily worked and so handy that it might well have been actually used by primitive man when the gods prodded him on to activity and invention by piling up obstacles and difficulties in his path. Virgil, therefore, had fair warrant for
Then first on seas the hollowed alder swam.
Spinning tackle and fly casts have I left upon alder bushes of a score of streams, but instead of bearing it any ill-will I hereby offer it humble and sincere homage, especially as in my early days of fly fishing I, in honest faith and unbroken conviction, used one of its juicy leaves for straightening the gut collar.
The Loddon, if not important as a navigable stream, or as busy as other rivers in the service of the miller, does a fair share of steady work. Rising in the North Hampshire downs near Basingstoke, the river runs through historical country. Cromwell's troopers, for instance, during the siege of Basing would no doubt water their horses in the fords of the Loddon, and Clarendon, who wrote the history of that rebellion, lived at Swallowfield. Near this village, almost within our own times, lived Mary Russell Mitford, whose delightful book, Our Village, neglected for years and almost forgotten, has set sail again before the favouring breeze of the cheap edition. She wrote her sketches at Three Mile Cross, some two miles from Swallowfield, and I refer to them because in the little volume you have faithful scenic pictures of the Loddon country. I have also a personal story to tell, to wit: On returning from one of my visits to Loddon-side I secured through an old friend of Miss Mitford a note in her handwriting, and was not a little impressed and amused on discovering that the envelope in which it was inclosed had been previously used and turned no doubt by the lady herself. It was only by accident—so neatly had the operation been performed—that I saw inside the original address, "Miss Mitford, Three Mile Cross, Reading, Berks." Soon after leaving Swallowfield, the Loddon, passing Arborfield Hurst and Twyford, yields up its life to the Thames by way of a modest delta.
Are there anywhere in England larger chub than those of the Loddon? It is not to be supposed that the alders extend their fattening influence to the fish as well as to the plants; but its existence in bush form, and in the serried ranks to which I have above referred, undoubtedly favours the long life of this shy fish. He lies under its overhanging boughs out of the way of even the most daring long corker, and from the leaves during the hot summer days drop unceasing relays of luscious insect food. The Loddon chub are nevertheless extremely voracious at odd times. Pike fishermen often get them with both live and dead bait, and I myself in the unregenerate days of trolling took a big one with gorge bait. An honest-minded chub may anywhere be expected to be led astray by a prettily-vestured minnow, and there is no disgrace attaching to its character if it allows itself to be seduced by a well-spun gudgeon; but to tackle a 4-oz. dead roach, and be ignominiously finished off by a coarse gorge hook, is not exactly what one looks for. Yet this frequently occurred on the Loddon.
I rather suspect I had an experience in this direction. A kind friend had invited me to spend a day on the Loddon, not very far from that same Swallowfield of which I have been sentimentalising. We drove in the fresh autumn morning along the charming country road, inhaling the balm of the pines and watching the graceful squirrels at their after-breakfast antics in the oaks. And we congratulated ourselves upon the prospect. There was a little rime on the grass, for I had left town by gaslight, but all other conditions were as favourable as if they had been made to order. There were plenty of bait and a boat at our disposal.
My kind friend pointed with a warm smile to a snug hamper in the carriage. The world under these circumstances looked fair. We noticed the yellow mottlings of autumnal decay on the chestnut trees and elms, the ruddier shade of the beeches; we discussed the failure of the blackberry crop, and pretended to knowledge about turnips. Thus, interchanging thoughts, we arrived at the Loddon, to find a deep, dirty brown colour. The world then was not so fair. It was a miserable disappointment, in short, and we had to make the best of it. We found a few jack by trolling in the eddies close to the bank, but the day was to all intents and purposes a blank.
In the afternoon my friend pulled me upstream that I might find quiet corners and the very off-chance of a jack. At one part there was a break in my friends, the alders, and a scoop in the bank where the water was deep. Discreetly and naturally I dropped the dead bait, and on the instant it was grabbed and worried. My first impression was that it was a perch. I have known a big perch seize a large bait and shake it in that dog-like fashion, and that impression was confirmed when, instead of the strong run of a straightforward jack, the seizure was followed by jerky movements and very little running out of line. It was no more than I expected that the bait should be by and by impudently deserted. Its head I found to have been savagely bitten half through. From the size of the semi-circular gash the chub or perch, whatever it might happen to be, was no youngster.
Upon reflection, and upon re-examination of the wound, my friend, who was an experienced Loddon angler, agreed with me that the fish was a chub. The leather mouth proper of the cheven, chavender, skelly, or chub, scientifically known as Leuciscus cephalus, is, as the angler knows, or should know, without teeth, but if you will have the goodness to push your finger down the throat of a freshly-caught three- or four-pounder, you will be more than likely to discover that nature has furnished this innocent-looking member of the carp family with two rows of very decent lacerators. The best result nevertheless of that day's fishing was the receipt in a letter two days later of a specimen of the showy yellow leopard's bane from my friend. We had pointed out to each other solitary wildflowers left alone to tell of a summer that was past, and he had found this somewhat sparingly-located bloom two months overdue for its grave.
So many years have passed since I fished Loddon and St. Patrick's stream that I will not be tempted to lead anyone astray by pretending to prescribe, advise, or dogmatise. It was not first-rate in the days of my personal knowledge, but it yielded then as now tolerable coarse fishing, pike and perch being the standing dish; and there are deep, slow-going lengths, natural haunts of heavy roach. A brother angler who knows the river thoroughly had a curious theory about the Loddon perch. With minnow or worm, he truly said, for I can corroborate him, "any quantity" of perch of 1/2 lb. or 3/4 lb. might be caught; but there was also another set of fish of 1 1/2 lb. and upwards—not, of course, of a distinct breed, but still distinct from the smaller grade just mentioned. These rarely took a minnow, but a gudgeon on the paternoster, and on the upper hook thereof, frequently proved fatal to a two-pounder. One July, within my own remembrance, a splendid fellow of 3 lb. 2 oz. was taken with a lob-worm from one of the Loddon milltails.
Much of the Loddon is private fishing, as it has always been, but there are still portions accessible to the public. The Loddon is closely associated with the good work done in the whole of that district for preservation in the interests of the angler, and at one time the Reading and Henley Associations jointly rented the length from the Great Western Railway to the Thames (including the St. Patrick stream) with the object of preservation as a breeding ground for Thames fish. A change in riparian ownership put an end to this arrangement, but anglers generally should never forget the time, labour, and enthusiasm devoted to Thames, Loddon, and Kennet preservation by a band of workers, amongst whom I must include as one of the invaluables the friend once or twice referred to in the foregoing notes—Mr. A. C. Butler, of the Reading Mercury. In his own district his is a household name, and in many a metropolitan club "Old Butler of Reading" has been familiar for many years as one of those quiet helpers of the cause who work for the sheer love of it.
Once upon a time when there was no talk of changes, and no great demand for them, the fishing of the Thames district was the bulk of "Angling" in the columns of the Field and Bell's Life, which then almost alone made a serious subject of fishing, and amongst the men who wrote were Greville F., Brougham, and Butler, who was for years and years the Field correspondent long after the others had passed away. As a man barely in his sixties one ought not to dub him a veteran, but for all that he is one of the old guard of angling correspondents and provincial journalists. In a letter from him a week or two since he regrets that rheumatism and journalistic duties have interfered with his outings, but still cheerily mentions "a measly half gross of gudgeon" at Mapledurham, and the year before last he adds "with water dead stale, we had about the same number of gudgeon, and quite sixty roach from 1/2 lb. to 1 1/4 lb." And yet they tell us that the Thames is played out!
Three days since I saw a colleague who was going to the City to see a 1/4-lb. roach which had been taken out of the Thames in a bucket at London Bridge the day before. It should be stated that Mr. Butler was with "John Bickerdyke," now in South Africa, and A. E. Hobbs, the hon. secretary, founders of the Henley Association, and co-workers in other directions with his friends, James Henry Clark, Bowdler Sharpe, Thurlow of Wycombe, and many another. He founded the Reading and District Angling Association in 1877, and practically ran it during its successful career; it ended three years ago, but its work remains in the head of fish in the district and a thorough loyalty amongst the working men's clubs which he helped to start and establish. Mr. Butler, too, was the prime mover in stocking the Thames in the Reading district with two- and three-year old trout, buying and bringing the fish from High Wycombe. I know and appreciate his voluntary work for anglers and am glad of an opportunity of recording it.
Might one trespass so far on the reader's patience as to return to the inspiration of the beginning of this sketch for a conclusion? The remark of which I would deliver myself is that the artificiality of which the poet Pope is accused in his natural scenery generally applies to his references to sport. He is more sympathetic with his anglers than with his fowlers, but neither appears to kindle the fire as in the lines in which he traces the name of the Loddon to Lodona, the fabled nymph of Diana. Pan's chase of the hapless nymph through Windsor Forest calling in vain for aid upon Father Thames is full of spirit, and he aptly justifies the name of Loddon—
She said, and melting as in tears she lay, In a soft silver stream dissolv'd away, The silver stream her virgin coldness keeps, For ever murmurs, and for ever weeps; Still bears the name the hapless virgin bore And bathes the forest where she rang'd before.
It is in "Windsor Forest" that many lines are found by which Pope is perhaps alone remembered by many sportsmen. The references to the well-breathed beagles and the circling hare are happy, and very characteristic of the poet's telling style in the couplet in brackets.
Beasts, urged by us, their fellow beasts pursue, And learn of man each other to undo.
Equally characteristic of his defects are the shooting touches in which the "unwearyd fowler" is introduced, with the "leaden death" of the "clam'rous lapwings," and the "mounting larks." The glimpse of lonely woodcocks haunting the watery glade is sufficiently apt, but let the shooting man stand at attention when grandiloquently informed.
He lifts the tube, and levels with his eye; Straight a short thunder breaks the frozen sky.
Ten lines further in the poem stands the picture which endears Pope to anglers for all time, and which need only be indicated, as in the hymn books, with the first line:
The patient fisher takes his silent stand.
A FIRST SPRINGER AND SOME OTHERS
There is no specific virtue that I ever heard of in a first anything, yet you very often hear of it as a remembrance that may be pleasant, and is often otherwise. The sportsman is as prone as anyone to such references, and I defy the fishing or shooting editors of the Field to count off-hand the number of MSS. that they receive headed first salmon, first tiger, first pheasant, or first something. At this moment I seem to have a better understanding of the reason. The heading is used to get rid of the difficulty as to what exactly would be better, and in much the same way as A. is made a member of the Cabinet lest there should be awkwardness over the claims of B. and C. My choice of a title of this sketch is not precisely so to be explained. I simply plead sequence.
In a previous chapter I wrote of my first Tweed salmon, and in this chapter there is no reason why I should not fall back upon the dear old formula for a reminiscence of the Tay. The emphasis should be on "springer," for I went northwards with a desire to catch one that had taken the form of a longing, a yearning for many successive seasons. Besides, it was February, when the springer is prized more positively than at a more advanced period of the spring. You will probably get a dozen kelts to one springer, and the fish, therefore, is in the category of the important. By the river report of last Saturday I see that Lord Northcliffe (who will always be Alfred Harmsworth to the republic of the pen, and who always has been a keen and travelled angler) has been rewarded with four salmon, and congratulate while I envy him. In truth, it was this statement in the report that forced me to forget this miserable weather by catching my first springer over again as fondly remembered.
The seeker for the springer has not a little call upon endurance, not the least being in the uncertainty of the conditions. How well I know what it means on those beats above Perth when in sleet and gale the river is 15 ft. above the normal, flooding the Inch levels at the beginning of the season, as happened in the early days of this season. In my case the uncertainty was so felt and protracted before starting on my journey. You can understand probably that the feeling of the man who is ready for the summons, yet who is put off by telegrams and letters day after day, gets at last beyond longing; it works up into a sort of innocent fury. An old angler, hampered for many a season, and finding freedom at last, consoles himself with the reflection that passion, too much intenseness about such a matter, will trouble his philosophy never more. Yet one morning he is swept off his feet. A kindly friend has days of salmon fishing for him; fish have run up and are plentiful; he need but wait the signal, and go. What, in all reasonable conscience, could be nicer? But how true it is that there is nothing in life so certain as its uncertainty! Day succeeds day in the customary fashion, and the expected summons cometh not. Those days on fine beats that were set apart for you pass in flood; you tick them off as materials for the book you mean to write on "Chances that I have Missed."
"She rose 2 ft. yesterday, but better wait," had wired my friend, and in due time I find that on that very day the man who took my place killed three fish. When I hastened down to the bridge on my arrival to see how she was, the river, which had risen strongly as soon as that three-hour, three-salmon man had got off the beat, had fallen to a point between impossibilities and chances. And the wind had slewed round from south-west to west, with a flirting to north. Here was another day, if not lost, certainly without fishing.
Having looked at the river and read my fate in the heavy stream—a mighty race of water, 400 yards from bank to bank—I sought the sight of some salmon, and went to the fish house. The quick returns had not come in that morning, but there were about a hundred salmon laid out on the floor ready for prompt dispatch to market. They averaged 20 lb., but, silvery as they all were, I could pick out the few that had come in that morning. There was one lovely she-fish of about 23 lb., with a ventral fin literally as purple as the dorsal of a grayling, and for suggestions of pearls and opals, maiden blushes, and the like, nothing could have been more perfect than the sheen of this Tay salmon. In another hour the glory would have faded away. And all those fish had been taken by the net. The angler who was lusting for one of them under his rod spake not, and went away sorrowful.
But, after all, what would the morrow bring forth? The great river was running down, the night was fair, and there was hope—for the glass was rising, and the wind really had been good enough to get out of the south. As a matter of history, the morrow promised fair things, though I went forth in fear and trembling. The miry ways of the past month had given way to a frost, and we walked across to the station on frozen puddles. Exhilaration was in the air. The glass showed half an inch to the good since last night. Our gillie, who met us at Stanley station, admitted this; yes, but 2 ft. less of water would warrant better confidence. And that was sensible Scottish caution. We got down to the river, and, though the colour was not bad, she was too big and strong.
The prospect of even a happening fish was of the poorest. To be brief, the odd fish did not come my way, and there's an end on't. Only two pools were fishable. No boat could be worked in any other part. If I say I fished every inch of the water, first with fly, and then with a small dace spun from the Malloch reel, I simply state facts. Over the pool did I patiently fish with Nicholson and Dusty Miller of large size, and a second time with the spinning bait. Two fish showed during the day, a shockingly black beggar of not less than 30 lb. which jumped out of the water, and another kelt which plunged out of range. It was an absolute blank, and a fall of snow before I caught my train was ominous. There had been a flood of 15 ft. (a favourite figure apparently on that Tay gauge) and it takes any river a long time to settle down, and the fish to resume their ordinary habits, after such riotous excess. Still, I had enjoyed a downright hard day's work, and had deserved the success which was denied. The position, therefore, was—Friday, Saturday, and Monday lost through the unfishable condition of the river, and just a chance on Wednesday if there was no further rise of water.
Wednesday was sunny, and the water had fallen about a foot during the night, so that Tay ought soon to be in ply, for another frost occurred in the night, and the snow did not appear to be serious. The order of the head boatman was for harling. You have two boatmen on this river, and they had to exert themselves to the utmost to handle her with so heavy a current. It was my first experience of systematic harling. The rods are out at the stern of the boat, and the angler sits on a cross seat facing them, and so placed that he can lay hands upon either in an instant. Three greenheart rods of about 16 ft. are displayed fanwise; that is to say, there is a rod in the middle extended straight forwards, the rods right and left slant outwards, and they are kept in position by a contrivance in the bottom of the boat into which the button of each rod handle fits, and by grooves on the gunwale on either side in which the rod rests and is kept at the proper angle. The butts of these rods are close together in these appointed niches under the seat in the bottom of the boat, and the points are naturally right, left and centre, widely separated. The fourth rod in this boat was a single piece of greenheart, 6 ft. in length, but admirably made, and in thickness was something like the second joint of an ordinary salmon rod. The workmanship was so good that it was a perfect miniature. This is the rod that is used for a spinning bait, and is placed at the angler's left hand. It was equipped with a sand eel and the gay little metal cap with flanges, which was invented by Mr. Malloch to facilitate the spinning. The 3 in. flies we used were Jock Scott, Nicholson (a favourite Tay fly), and Black Dog.
The two men settled to their oars, and I sat before my rods ready to play upon them as occasion arose. We had not been under way five minutes, and I had not finished wondering how the Tom Thumb rod would behave at a crisis, when a sudden test was applied. The winch sang out, and I had the rod up and under mastery in the twinkling of an eye, with the fish running smartly and pulling hard. Meanwhile, the head boatman winched up the other lines and gave me a fair field of action. The fish was evidently not enamoured of that delicate sand eel, for there was a good deal of head shaking for a few minutes. Presently the boat touched shore, and I had by then discovered that the little rod was as good as an 18-footer, and more powerful in holding a salmon than many of full length which I have used. The fight was a good one, though I stuck to my policy of a pound per minute, and it was good to know that it was a clean fish. This was my first springer, and the poor chap had been badly mutilated by a seal in the sea not many days ago, yet they told me that it is no uncommon thing to have salmon so wounded taking freely.
Once more on board our lugger, we zigzagged on our course, the men pulling with regular stroke, and though they row sturdily the boat is merely held, and drops down rather than advances. If salmon are not in the humour harling presents the elements of monotony, and the wise plan seems to me not to think of the rods, nor look at them, nor wonder which will be first in action. Such were my thoughts, and I laid out a line of thought as a corrective. Thud, thud, go the oars, steadily nodding by the movement of the waves go the rod tops. Aye, hours of this would suggest a certain sameness, probably. And then came the startling moment that is so delicious, the jump of the flat pebble off the line pulled out upon the bottom boards, the rattle of the check, the strong curve of the rod. It all takes place in a swift moment. You are on your feet and playing your fish as if by instinct. The Jock Scott had attracted this fish, and the familiar process was followed—the stepping ashore, the retreat up the bank backwards, the rod well curved all the while, and the fish held hard, since there was doubly rapid water below, and it must be kept sternly in hand. The gillie did not take up the gaff now, and my hopes were dashed, for it meant that he had recognised a kelt, which must be tailed. And it was tailed, and being freed from the hook was not slow in shooting into the depths. The fish was well mended, and would be taken by most people for a clean salmon. The expert can, on the contrary, deliver judgment at a glance.
There remained another hour before luncheon, and the time was not wholly uneventful; at any rate, there were little thrills. A decided pull happened to the Black Dog rod, but the fish was away before I could take it up. A similar bit of frivolity was practised by another fish ten minutes later at my middle rod, which, I forgot to say, had brought the well-mended kelt to bank. Going to land for the midday rest, as it was not quite one o'clock, I put up a rod which I wished to try, and proposed to warm myself with a little casting. The second cast rose a fish close to the bank, and, after allowing the usual time for restoration to confidence, out went the Nicholson, and very bravely did that noble fly work round, swimming, I could swear, on an even keel, and shaking its finery all around in the water. The fly did not reach the fish which had risen, because another was before him, and I knew that the hook had gone home. We thought this was a good fish, and fresh run, albeit he lay low and confined his movements to a small area. Alas! it was kelt number two, and not more than 10 lb. at that. All the same, I had landed three fish of sorts by one o'clock, and enjoyed minor sensations.
There was no more fun. We had heard that 3 in. of snow had fallen in the hills a few miles up, and the sun of the forenoon had no doubt melted it. We harled for two hours, and with neither pull nor sign of fish. To-morrow ought to bring the river into fair order; though, even so, a foot less would be more to my mind.
The next day opened with a heavy storm of wet snow, and this continued, with intervals of sleet, till the afternoon. It was not expected that this would put the river up, and she was in fact falling very slowly. At this point, however, every inch of drop is to the good. I landed six fish that day, only one a springer. The boats had done better in the reaches where the clean fish lie in such high water, and two gentlemen at night brought into Malloch's five grand springers, caught on the beat which was to have been mine on Friday. The Tay still remained a foot too heavy:
Strong without rage, Without o'erflowing full.
The novel experience (to me) of salmon fishing in a heavy snowstorm is worth a few words of amplification, for all new experiences add to the interest of the game. It was snowing at breakfast time, and Mr. Malloch was so kind as to snatch a day from the demands of his own affairs to share my boat, and from the way he and the boatmen took the storm as a simple matter of course—indeed, as not calling of a casual comment—I take it that up here, at the foot of the Grampians, they are used to this sort of pleasure. But sea and fresh water anglers all over the world need not be reminded that a wet boat is an abomination; what, then, must it be when it is caused by hours of snowfall, large flakes softly wet? Everything gets drenched and sopping, and it really appeared as if these white hazelnut flakes were possessed by an elfish desire to baffle your most careful efforts to keep them out. My waterproof bag was to the human eye impervious; but there was one unnoticed opening not an inch long by half an inch wide, and the flakes discovered it at once. There was a japanned metal fly box upon which they might have had their will, but that was not sufficient; they fixed upon the soft leather wallet with the precious gut casts, and made a much too successful attack upon the paper packet of sandwiches. At the waterside I had looked at my companions, expecting them to cry off; as I said before, however, this almost blinding snow was merely ordinary business, and I huddled down in my place, thankful that there was no cold wind, no wind at all, to drive the trial home.
We were soon turning to shore with our first fish, and I was grateful for the stout arm and shoulders of the friendly skipper, who helped me out of the slippery boat, up and up to a standing point on the more slippery bank. On this beat the banks were awkward, high, and backed by copse, so that you stood amongst undergrowth, and this was a very different thing from the gentle slopes of clear sward. It came all right, nevertheless; in life generally the wind undoubtedly very often, if we had but the common gratitude to think so, is tempered to the shorn lamb. Wherefore the old bell wether got through these trifles without a tumble. The incidents that had to be deplored were what the salmon fisherman calls the kelt nuisance. We had it in liberal allowance this day. It would be wearisome to enter into details of the successive happenings so great is their family resemblance.
The first landing was to get rid of a kelt; and in all, if I may anticipate, we had five of them—a small fish of, say, 6 lb., and the rest between 12 lb. and 15 lb. Now and again with the kelts you have a positive fight, but as a rule they hang on and move tardily, yet without risk of smashing something you cannot hasten the finale. At the worst they are a little better than pike. The one bonny spring fish was an absolute contrast, though of course even clean salmon in February are not so defiant and reckless in their defiance as they are months later. Let us still be thankful; a kelt is better than nothing, a spring fish is welcome, and we must be content with such chances as we can obtain.
Consider the time consumed on a short winter day by six landings. There is the getting in the other lines by winching them up, making bait and fly fast to the winch bar, rowing to shore, sometimes from the middle of a 200 yards' river, and securing adequate foothold ashore. The fish is to be firmly controlled with a bent rod all the while, and when he comes in there is no decisive finish with the cleek, since your kelt must have his freedom unharmed if possible. The dexterity with which the boatmen carry out these operations is marvellous, the result of being masters of their calling combined with long practice; also because they have the soul of the sportsman almost to a man. The cost of six landings, in fact, works out at nearly half an hour a time, and the reward on this particular day was one good fish of 18 lb., which had taken a Black Dog. The flies were most attractive, and there were some pulls at tails of bait or feathers, two or three rises, and a respectable fish which remained for five minutes on one of the baits. By a pull, let me explain, I mean the rattle of the reel for a fraction of a minute, a sharp dip of the rod top, and the bait or fly resuming its progress "as you were."
To end this narrative I must not forget the novel effect of the snow clinging to the tree tops. The firs high up the steeps on either side for a couple of hours looked as if they had burst into rich white blossom in full bearing. The small sleet, which followed in the afternoon as a natural fizzling out of the storm, and a warm wind quickly did their duty, and we had the pleasure of seeing the pines shed their blossoms before our eyes; they fell with melancholy drip down to the carpets of rotting leaves, leaving the trees to their funereal winter black.
One other musing of the day. There is a legend in Nithsdale that Burns used to go a-fishing when he lived at Dumfries. If so, it is quite possible that his famous poetic idea came to him one day while fishing, perhaps with a brother exciseman:
And like a snowflake on the river, One moment here, then gone for ever.
Friday brought a contrast indeed. A sharp frost hardened up the country during the night—and the sun rose boldly into a cloudless sky without any shilly-shally before nine o'clock. It was along iron-bound roads, with the meltings of yesterday converted to ice, that I drove to my allotted beat. There was a wonderful change from yesterday; the golden plover on the flats were not briskly moving on the moistening turf as before, though flocks of woodpigeons were astir. The pure snow, which remained on the low land, was crisp and sparkling, diamonding a fair white world. The river had fallen, of course, since the snow of yesterday had made no difference. The evidence was plain enough. You read it in the green margin glistening against the snow line sinuously left along the banks. Tay looked beautifully black, moreover, and the boatmen said "They ought to come." But I never knew salmon take properly till a frosty day has well advanced. On this bright day I resolved to try to write up my notes, in the fervent hope that every good sentence would be spoiled by a summons from one of the four rods of which I was in command. For one hour my pencil wrought without a pause, and delightful it was under the sunshine to indite to the steady strokes of two pair of oars, the rhythmic swish of the water, now tranquilly flowing, and easy for all of us.
Fortunately our most unlikely water came first, and all the while the frost would be getting out of the water. It was a very heavy reach, and Tay was still too big for such; fish would be lying lower down, and those that we were rowing over would not take well. Those five lovely springers that I mentioned before must have come out of a particularly favourable stretch. That is part of the glorious uncertainty of it all. The boat of to-day, for example, accounted yesterday for one solitary kelt, though it had shared our experience of futile pulls and visible rises in the afternoon. Now if—— Ah! The shrill tongue of Tom Thumb's reel gave a welcome view holloa (half-past eleven) and the sentence I was pencilling remains unfinished. I have forgotten what it would have been. By this time the motions of a kelt had become familiar, and I liked not the docility with which this fellow allowed himself to be towed to land, nor his inertness when I had him in grip afterwards. My verdict I gave in a look at the headman, and his confirmation of my unspoken thought was, "Yes; he's too quiet." Yet it was a long while before I could get him up sufficiently for recognition beyond doubt; that accomplished, it was short shrift. He was lifted into the boat by the tail, the triangles came out easily under the knife, and off went a well-mended fish of about 13 lb. That is to say, I call him a fish; the boatmen decline to render even this nominal honour, and I appear in the returns of yesterday as having killed one fish, whereas I had landed half a dozen.
And now followed an unproductive hour, at the end of which there were two ineffectual pulls, one at the Nicholson fly, the other a second or two later at the bait. The former was not enough to rattle off the stone from the loop of line; the latter ran out a yard and merely ticked the winch. The sunshine was not treating us as handsomely as the snowstorm, for by this time yesterday we had brought off three engagements. However, the day was not over, and we landed for lunch, believing that better fortune would be vouchsafed—lunch, too, in open, warm sunshine.
Harling and the notebook were resumed, and lest we should settle down too readily to monotony, a flutter down stream betrayed the whereabouts of the Black Dog, betrayed also a wretched little kelt (about 5 lb.), called in these parts a "kelt grilse." So far had I noted when the left rod, upon which the fly had been replaced by a sand eel, strained for a gallant run. Down on the thwart went book, pencil, and spectacles, and I had an exciting five minutes in midstream with an undoubted "fish." He fought like a Trojan—and then the line fell slack. The fish was off. How do they escape from these triangles? Caught lightly by one hook, I suppose, and, as a result, an easily broken hold.
The sun was for a couple of hours too bright, and four o'clock came with nothing to record. Only one hour left. Then a succession of short runs from non-fastening fish, and one lightly hooked on the fly, which came away at the initiatory tightening. By now half an hour remained, and an exciting finish consumed it. I do not admit that it was wasted; I only mean that "fish" was not the cause. Kelts were. The centre rod with the Black Dog briskly rang me up, and I leaped to the call with "Got him!" "So have I," cried the head man. Tom Thumb had found a fish, and we were each busy for a while. The men had all they could do to get the boat to land and winch in the two loose lines. But it was done, as usual, promptly and cleverly. I was too intent upon my own fish, the heaviest I had battled with that day, to see how it was done; suffice that there was no hitch. We both stepped ashore. The head man worked his fish above me, and, it being a small 10-pounder, soon threw it in again, and his mate was free to come down to me. We all knew it was a kelt, and get him to spurt or be lively I could not. He lay low and solid till patience had done its perfect work, and in he came. There was an end of my back-ache when the rod and I could straighten ourselves and leave the men to tail out the fish. They hurled him in regardless of his feelings, and, indeed, like gentlemen whose honour had been sorely wounded.
"Eighteen pounds, wasn't he?" I ventured to remark very humbly as they turned their contemptuous back on the fish floundering awhile in the shallow. "Weel, saxteen punds, maybe," was the reply. These kelts, anyhow, left us no time for further operations. The sun had been so effective that it had changed the outlook all around in a few hours by restoring the land to its original green and brown. Business done, as "Toby, M.P.," puts it—four landings, six pulls, two fish hooked and lost, one of them, of course, the fish of this or any other season. I shall always maintain it was a "fish." That night I had a chat with a brother angler, who had made a grand bag, and he introduced me to his friend who had enjoyed the success of the novice in killing a beautiful fish of 22 lb.
There was not long to wait on Saturday morning. The first line to be put out was at the left hand, baited with sand eel, and I had barely touched the next to lift it from its groove when the winch at the left screamed as if hurt. The fish was on, but it was proclaimed at once an insignificant one. Still, the rites and ceremonies must be duly observed; the boat must go to shore, the angler must step over the thwarts and stand on terra firma. All this trouble for a kelt of about 6 lb. After the lapse of an hour Tom Thumb gave signal. The gudgeon, which had a wobbling spin, had been touched twice already by short comers; now it was fairly taken just as the boat was turned on its zigzag course. For anything I could feel it might be a trout. It ran out a few yards, and meekly came in to slow winching. The same lack of spirit was maintained even when I landed, but a surprise came as I retired further up the brae, for the fish sharply resented the liberty I was taking with him, as if he objected to my contempt. In truth, he inspired my respect during the next ten minutes—ran across and down, and generally bucked up, as a modern school miss would say. He gave up dawdling, and fought it out briskly. By and by we got a glimpse of a flash of silver, and it was an undoubted fish. The gaff, which I had not seen yesterday, now appeared, and the second boatman stood by with the priest to administer the quietus to a lovely spring salmon of 17 lb.
Within a quarter of an hour I was rudely roused from a reading of The Fair Maid of Perth by the sand eel rod to the left, and here was a fish powerful and alert from the start. He was held hard, but took out line persistently; if I winched up a few yards they were torn angrily off again. And so the contest was maintained, and intensified when I stood on the turfy slope. It was encouraging to see the men step forth with gaff and priest again. For twenty minutes the salmon kept down and never quiet, and then very slowly I winched up the fifty yards which had been taken out in instalments. The silver swirl satisfied us all, and presently the career of a stately 19-pounder was ended.
After luncheon we put out again, and I was tolerably certain that if no other fish came to boat I should not break my heart nor die of grief. The taking of that handsome pair of spring salmon was an admirable tonic, and I resumed my Scott in a contented mood. After three chapters the mood was not quite the same; after a fourth I felt somewhat ill-used. Two hours, in short, passed, and the wind had veered round to the north. In other words, it was cold. Tom Thumb warmed me up eventually; its gudgeon had been taken, and I had something in secure custody. A big one, at any rate, of what quality we should determine later. I had grave doubts, however, of the issue, for he terminated each run by coming to the top and swirling there most uncannily. Patience and the butt in time revealed him the best fish of the day, and I heaved a sigh of relief and sat down on a rock for breath when the gaff lifted him out, the priest shrived him, and the balance stood at 20 1/2 lb. A truly handsome leash of salmon!
ANGLING COUSINS AT THE VICARAGE
The girls seemed to have moderated their zeal for the bicycle, and in truth it was too hot to last. Then they were all for angling, and for this we had to thank certain books recently reviewed and the vicar of Netherbate. It fell to a useful cousin's lot to purchase the books. The girls were intensely interested in Mr. Dewar's South Country Trout Streams, because they knew most of the Hampshire country so pleasantly described, and they liked the photographs, one of the two readers being herself a kodakeer of no mean skill. It was the illustrations, too, of Mr. Halford's Marryat edition of Dry Fly Fishing that pinned their attention to that work for at least two hours. They wondered not a little at the attitude of the dry-fly gentleman as he is photographed doing the overhand cast, downward cut, steeple cast, and dry-switch, and under the vicar's tuition fell in love with the Mayfly plate, not excluding the uncanny larvae likenesses. The reverend monitor, indeed, proposed that they should drive forthwith over to the Trilling, a chalk stream tributary at the further limit of the estate, and dredge in the mud, or whatever their home may be, for the beasts themselves.
To keep to the story, it must be stated that after this interlude the girls came to Lord Grey's Fly Fishing, the attractive avant coureur of the Haddon Hall Library. The vicar, who had dissuaded them from end-to-end reading of Halford's standard book because it was strong meat and they were babes (apologising in his cheery way for talking shop in such a connection), dealt out quite the contrary advice about Lord Grey's book, not because the author is an eminent statesman and titled, or because it was the best looking, but by reason of its glamorous word pictures of the country. He artfully picked out passages that, having no reference at all to fishing, very poetically touched off the six great blossoms of May, and the singing summer birds easily espied amongst the young leaves and sprouting brushwood; the long days and warm nights of June, when the wild rose is a beauty to be admired, and the distant masses of elder have a fine foamy appearance. These extracts settled Belinda offhand, and she and Lamia laid their heads together and read the book faithfully. They are good girls, spite of the names selected for them by a fanciful parent, and if they are not proud of those names, and prefer being called by their intimates Blind (with a short "i") and Lammy, there is, I hope, no great harm done. That is better no doubt than the Miss Blinders and Miss Lame-ears of the cottage folk.
The practical issue of this study of fishing literature (for which also cousin had to pay) and this not-minding of his own parochial business by the vicar (dredging hideous larvae, forsooth, when he ought to be a-fishing of men) may be reckoned at very little change out of a bank note—for cousin. It is true that this is a minor matter, and in a measure a somewhat sordid consideration. Also, I am anticipating a little. Perhaps I ought to have at once made it clear that the really practical issue of the aforesaid was an insistence on the part of the girls that they should be taught fly fishing, and equipped with the correct "things" (their expression not mine), for a new diversion; it must be done immediately, expense not to be considered. The vicar was strong as to the hang-the-cost doctrine, and this he said knowing that cousin would see his ten-pound note no more for ever. Perhaps the reader will comprehend why cousin was passing sore; he paid the piper, and the vicar evidently meant to dance to the tune. In plain phrase, he undertook, if cousin would drill them sufficiently into the mysteries of fly fishing, to lead them into action in earnest during the approaching Mayfly time. Wherefore cousin fitted them out with rods, winches, lines, casts, and flies. But he drew the line at waders, as not being in the department of a mere he-cousin.
With curious indiscretion he brought home a tackle-maker's catalogue, with the "things" which he considered generously requisite. Then the girls consulted the pamphlet, and, backed of course by the vicar, insisted that a silver spring balance in morocco case (to weigh up to or down from 4 lb.), an oil bottle for odourless paraffin, and other small trifles were needful. Cousin gave them all credit for gratitude evinced after his second trip to town, and any reader must give him credit for the honest pleasure that was his recompense. They were satisfied for the time being, as the reader will readily understand. "A very neat little rig-out indeed, my dear," said B. to L., the vicar corroborating like the sound of a small amen. For a while the donor resolutely declined to buy split-cane rods, deeming high-class greenhearts sufficient for beginners, though the vicar argued that it was always wise in tuition to begin as you intend to proceed. This casuistry cousin heeded not.
"Very well, my dear fellow," he said airily, "you know best. We shall have the Mayfly up in about a month; the girls will know how to use a rod by then, and you'll simply have to buy split canes after all. You use a split cane, I use a split cane, and you must be deplorably ignorant of girl nature if you suppose they will be content with greenhearts two minutes after they have seen our rods put together."
Such an argument the young man respected, and, relenting, he bought split-cane rods. Light gun-metal winches, 30 yards of tapered line, and the regulation etceteras were completed by a couple of waterproof bags of the finest material, as taking more kindly to the female form than a hard, bumping, stick-out creel. As was explained to Blind, there would be always someone to look after the fish caught, if any; the bag was for fly-book, scent bottle, spring balance, and trifles of that kind, never forgetting fine cutting pliers in case of accidents with fingers, lips, noses, or ears hooked foul.
The preliminary lessons being rudimentary and in the nature of drudgery were of course entrusted to cousin. They were to be imparted, to begin with, on the smooth sward of the bowling green. The girls required to be persuaded a little to this humble curriculum, which, in truth, is a comfortable, serviceable, and labour-saving way of mastering the rudiments. Granted it is make-believe, yet not more than practising at a target. The pupils at last were convinced that it was a sensible means to an end, and began with a flower-pot saucer varying yards up the lawn. Blind took almost naturally to the trick of allowing the rod to have its natural way. It was wonderful how after a quarter of an hour she intuitively understood what to do. But that was her nature; as a child she was never flustered, and at the first trial her leisurely sweep, with the needful pause of the line in air behind her, was admirable. She did, in fact, at the outset what many an experienced angler has never thoroughly acquired. Lammy, on the contrary, was hard to coach; that is her nature, too; she always was so impetuous. From the bare line they advanced to a gut cast and hackled fly with filed-off barb, and Blind could deftly drop the palmer into the saucer at twelve yards days before her sister could get out the line with anything like an approach to straightness.
The time arrived for applied science, and cousin director bade the girls don those waders which they had clamoured to use even on the lawn, and come away to the stream. It was fortunate that they had a shallow which, for practical essays in casting, was a nice compromise, as a position for throwing a fly, between the unnatural level of the lawn and the elevated banks of an ordinary trout river. There was a bridge spanning a smart run of knee-deep water, and above a beautiful broad shallow, aglow with white ranunculus blossoms, growing out of yellow sand held together with small gravel perpetually washed by crystal clear water. The damsels had to do their best with shortened walking dresses until certain smart clothes, about which there had been many whisperings, came down from the tailor; and in they went, skirts notwithstanding, like merry children as the stream rippled and gurgled four inches or so above the feet, which were encased in dainty rubber combination waders.
Bless the maiden, how delighted Blind was in delivering her first real cast with a real artificial fly on real water! They had not yet attempted the mysteries of dry fly; a fat alder on a No. 1 hook was honour enough for a beginning. A red spinner, in compliment to one who was a spectator, first chosen, alighted and floated well, but swiftly came down to the fair practitioner. Some trouble followed in gaining the delicate touch of line and winch, and knack of recovery essential to workmanlike up-stream casting, but the amiable pupil, being a listener rather than a talker, was quick to learn, and the lesson was over when the vicar arrived. To him Lammy soon contrived to explain that she was left on the bank, or, rather, paddling below in the shallow, ignored and lamenting. They were therefore left to operate in company while the others crossed the bridge and sought fresh water a little higher up the shallow.
Though there was no idea of catching fish that evening, fortune smiled upon the placid Blind. Obeying cousin's order to drop the fly between two well-defined patches of weed up-stream, she achieved a neat cast straight and clean to the desired spot. The fly, with the evening light showing it startlingly distinct, had not travelled three inches before something took it fiercely, and the winch was heard as sweet harmony. Neither of the operators had reckoned upon this. Cousin dared not speak at such a momentous crisis. Blind was startled into a little "oh," and, as he might have been sure without protestations, she kept cool, and remembered precisely the order of procedure which he had expounded in theory at odd times on the lawn—point of rod raised, winch left free but still at ready command, fish to be humoured, and no excitement. The battle was really over if she maintained her presence of mind, and in this she failed not.
The rod top was nid-nodding sweetly, the hand gently turning the reel handle, the fish held and guided. All was well. "What shall I do, cousin, now?" she asked. "Take it easy," he answered from the bank; "walk gently out towards me, don't slacken the line, and don't hurry the fish." And successfully done as formulated. Blind was throughout mistress of the situation, and in the absence of a landing net, which had not entered for a moment into calculations, she backed in perfect order up the gentle slope, and the fish docilely followed her up and up till it was high and dry, gasping on blossoms of silver weed. It was only a grayling, to be sure, black, and out of condition; but there it was, admired and petted. Blind would have kissed the creature I do believe if spectators had not been present; anyhow she would not hear of return to the water. What was close time to her? It was the first captive of her bow and spear, and nothing would content her but embalming, and a glass case.
Lammy was not so happy as her sister that night; the vicar had tried almost in vain to induct her into the art of fishing up-stream, and her casts across, on wet fly principles, while not so very bad for a beginner, were so obvious a contrast to those of Blind that she was not eager to dwell too much upon the wonderful luck that had befallen. Much conversation ensued for days as to the approaching Mayfly carnival. The girls demanded the water to themselves during its period, and as Lamia had landed a small trout that had hooked itself down stream on a submerged olive dun, she was soon as much bitten with the fishing mania as Blind herself. It was comforting to the vicar and cousin to be informed by the girls that they would henceforth accept no services from "hangers-on"—meaning that they would do their own landing and basketing. "We shall see," said cousin to the parson; "meanwhile (after I have bought the correct article in landing nets) we shall be having a lively time, I can perceive, when the old man slouches up some evening to say 'Mayfly be up now, missie.'"
"Aye, they are still faithful to the gentle art." Seasons had flown with that year's Mayflies, and Netherbate and its kindly people had to me become just a pleasant remembrance. But spite of the archidiaconal hat and gaiters I knew the vicar when accidentally met on the platform of York Station, and his reply to one of my questions about the happy people at Netherbate was precisely as I have written it. Of course the calls of romance had been fully answered by the marriage of Lamia to the vicar, and Belinda to cousin, and sunshine had blessed them all in basket and in store. I was now to learn that while the parties were still free they had continued their angling studies and practice, duly progressing from wet to dry fly, from trout to salmon.
"In fact," said the archdeacon, "I have had a letter from your old pal 'Blinders' this very day, telling me that she landed a Tweed fish yesterday above Kelso, and her boy was allowed to hold the rod while the boat rowed ashore. Lamia started by the train just now to join in her fishing, and I am left to the dubious excitements of the Congress. So glad to see you looking so well! Adieu."
A CONTRAST IN THAMES ANGLING
My personal knowledge of the Thames trout is not profound; but if it has left me somewhat short of the affection which many anglers proclaim, it has inspired a high respect; and if my interest in him is not precisely direct, I always have been able to sympathise keenly with his multitude of lovers and admirers. On this entrance upon another Thames trout season I have him in my thoughts, and am pleased to know that his status, character, and honour are on the whole nothing diminished as the years revolve. In the past I have, indeed, seen something of Thames trouting, and though I have, by lack of opportunity, not engaged largely in it, yet have formed ideas upon the subject that may be formulated as a seasonable topic. Also I have reason to remember this fish as figuring in one of the curious printer's errors of my early journalism. In a special big-type article in a daily paper I had glorified the breed and the business by the magniloquent demand "Who that has battled with a fine Thames trout in a thundering weir will ever forget, etc., etc.?" The step from the sublime to the ridiculous appeared next morning in the rendering "Who that has bathed with, etc., etc."
The ichthyologists who have made a study of the interesting salmon family have, perforce, unanimously agreed that the Thames trout is of the house of Brown: is in a word a true Salmo fario. But these learned gentlemen seem to have overlooked the equally undeniable fact that there are three distinct species of this excellent fish. First comes the Thames trout of the professional fisherman. Of this class there is an untold number. Their movements are keenly watched, and often chronicled with surprising minuteness. They are liberally scattered over every likely district from Teddington upwards, and there is a degree of familiarity with their habits, on the part of local observers, that at once whets our appetite and craves our admiration. You hear about them often by the riverside. At six o'clock yesterday morning a fish of 7 1/2 lb. appeared at the tail of the third stream from the right bank and disported for the space of an hour amongst the trembling bleak. He was rather short for his weight, and had remarkably white teeth. Later on, another of 5 lb., full weight, with a cast in his left eye, took a leisurely breakfast at the edge of yonder scour. Three trout, that can only be spoken of as "whoppers," are beyond question in possession of this pool; others are to be found between four and six of the afternoon at home in hovers, the whereabouts of which are known to a nicety. The gambols and predatory raids of this class of Thames trout afford great excitement and pleasure to the observant passers-by, and there is no doubt in the world that our friends are not always romancing with regard to them. Yet it may not be gainsaid that the Thames trout of the professional fisherman is but too often a Mysterious Unknown to the angler, and a creature never to be dissected by mortal fingers.
A second species of Thames trout is that of the unsuccessful angler. Hieing him blithely in the sweet spring morning to the waterside, the angler beholds this fine specimen to great advantage—by the eye of faith. His step quickens as, in all its magnificent proportions, it flashes before his inner vision. Saw you ever such brilliant vesture, such resplendent fins? By the time the sanguine sportsman has clambered over the rails in the third meadow, the line of hope has run out from the winch of imagination, and he has mentally struck that trout, played it, brought it to the rim of the net, played it yet again, and finally, after a battle heroic in its every detail, beheld it gracefully curved in the friendly meshes, and transferred to a grassy couch, to be the envy of his club and the boast of his family, even to the third and fourth generation. This also is a numerous species, for there is not a member of the great army of Thames anglers who has not, in this manner, seen specimens during the first three or four hours of that day which witnesses the spiritless return of the bearer of an empty basket.
The third species of Thames trout is of a more substantial kind, and although as to its quality we may allow ourselves to be as enthusiastic as the most hearty of Thames trout worshippers, we dare not blink at the cruel fact that, as to quantity, it ranks far below the two other species to which I have so charitably and gently referred.
What it may be to-day I know not, but in my time there was not a more likely spot than Boveney Weir for one of these goodly Thames trout in the flesh. From the sill over which the river churns into a splendid mass of milky foam, past the island, and for a couple of hundred yards down the water looks as much like the correct thing as any reach can do. But even in fishing matters, perhaps in them more especially, things are not always what they seem, and, reduced to the practical test of results, Boveney Weir, in the estimation of many practical anglers, is not now what it was, and decidedly not what it ought to be. On the Saturday after a Good Friday, which fell in April, one of the experts, as he worked a delicious little bleak in a most artistic fashion down the middle of the weir, bemoaned himself in my hearing on this account. Yet he could not complain. He had caught a trout on the previous Monday. And it has come to this! A man who evidently understands how to do it takes one fish in the course of a week, and, being conscientious, admits that he will not sin by complaining.
In the course of an hour, four gentlemen, nicely equipped with spinning rods, arrived at the scene of action, and paid out in the orthodox way at the head of the weir. I could see that they had been having brave sport with the above-mentioned species Number Two; but, so long as I remained, that was the sum total of their spoil. One could almost observe, by the gradual melancholy which settled upon their countenances as the time went on with no thrilling rap to make the top of the limber rod dance again, the hopeless fading out of these unsubstantial specimens from even the imagination. The east wind of course had been against everything ever since the trout season opened, and it was not surprising to learn that; though the weir had been well fished from All Fools' day onwards, only six fish had been taken, and they of the smallest size.
A Thames trout of 2 1/2 lb. is regarded as a mere minnow by the man who has drunk the deep delight of landing a fish of the normal weight of 6 or 7 lb.; yet this seemed to have been the average. Put it down to the east wind by all means. An honest Thames trout, properly educated up to the modern standard, would be unworthy of the confidence of the great metropolitan angling clubs if he so violated piscatorial law as to allow himself to be caught under such conditions, and it is but charity to suppose that these legally sizable but morally undersized fish were giddy youths, upon whom the example of the veterans, poising themselves steelproof in the current, yet virtueproof against temptation, was sadly thrown away.
Fish or no fish, it is, nevertheless, worth something to stand awhile at the head of the weir and indulge in those soothing reveries which a running stream provokes. You cross the lock, and by the permission of the lockkeeper (whose good temper is sorely tried these holiday times by the incessant passage of pleasure boats, bound for Surley, and maybe Monkey Island) pass over the pretty island, and enter upon the plankway which communicates with the further bank. The weir is broad, and its construction such that the heavy body of water from above stampedes through at your feet in magnificent force. Shout at your topmost pitch of voice if you would carry on a conversation with the roar of the swirl in the listener's ears. No fewer than seventeen distinct floods are pouring between the beams with never two escaping alike. As different are they as the current of our individual lives; now quietly gliding in, but not off, the racket on either side; now confidently asserting themselves by a semi-turbulent merriness; now all babble and bubble and surface; now dark, deep, and masterful through hidden force under a calm countenance; now tearing, and dashing, and running away with quickly scattered impulse.
Yonder, the sleeping island o'ershadowed by trees on the left, and the high indented bank on the right, seem to gather these diverse streams within their arms and reduce them to something like uniformity of purpose. And then, looking up and around from the seething pool, you see the stately grey towers of Windsor rising above the land, and the level meadows stretching green towards the eminences made picturesque by the woods.
The tradition amongst the fishermen is that Boveney Weir is full of "rum uns." This I take to be a confession of faith in the existence of large trout, and at the same time a delicate compliment to their wariness. All Thames trout are wary, and it is probably their outrageous artfulness which adds to the rapture of circumventing them. Old Nottingham George would tell many a tale of cunning trout which had been angled for so often and pricked so many times that they were supposed to have become as learned in the matter of fishermen and fishing tackle as humanity itself. The reader may not have read, or, reading, may have forgotten, that the principles of the Thames Angling Preservation Society were very early applied to Boveney Weir, for it is written that William, the son of Richard de Windsor, in the first year of the thirteenth century, gave a couple of marks to the king, in order that the pool and fishery might be maintained in no worse a condition than it used to be under the reign of Henry II.
Spinning for Thames trout, which is undoubtedly the most legitimate way of treating them, seeing that they so little appreciate the beauties of an artificial fly, is an art that requires perhaps more patience than skill. Your bleak, dace, gudgeon, minnow, or phantom, in point of fact, humoured fairly into the stream, does its own work; but anyone who watches the old-timers at such weirs as Eton or Boveney must perceive that there are many degrees of such science as the catching of a Thames trout demands. No doubt it is delightful to sit on a weir-head, reading your favourite author, while the rod is conveniently placed to give early notice of a run. It is delightful, but it is not angling. The most dunder-headed trout of the pool, at sight of a silvery bait racing apparently for dear life half out of water, yet never advancing, must metaphorically place its forefinger along its snout, and with a leery wink sheer off into the deep.
The majority of anglers seem too readily satisfied when their bait spins, whereas their chief aim should be to produce a movement as true to nature as possible, They spin too fast by half, not sufficiently calculating the varying force of the streams, and I am convinced that one of the most common faults of Thames spinners for trout and pike is working too near the surface. "Spin as deep as the character of the water will allow you" will be found in the long run a wholesome rule to follow, and, rather than keep on spinning in the same water, it will pay the angler to cease fishing for half an hour and begin anew with a bait as unlike its predecessor as he can make it. I can never fully understand the frequent admission, "He was a fine fish, but he got off." The breaking away of a lusty trout upon whom the fine line has been too heavily strained, or who has been hooked with rotten tackle, is explainable enough. It is a natural consequence. The "getting off" of such a fish is quite another matter, and argues something, in nine cases out of ten, radically wrong in the disposition of the hooks. You often see three or four triangles so fixed to the bait that only by accident can one of them get into the mouth of the fish, and not a half of one deserves to get in. There is no sense in having the hooks too small, and, if I may venture to offer one more opinion, no spinning flight for trout is perfect which has not a hook or hooks clear of all impediment at the tail.
About the tackle and methods of fishing for Thames trout there is nothing new to say. Of late years the use of the live bait with fine snap tackle, and on Nottingham principles, has prevailed to an increasing extent, but the familiar style of spinning from the weir beams still holds its own. It presents a minimum of toil, and the rushing water helps you so much that it appeals irresistibly to the happy-go-lucky instincts of the fair-weather sportsmen, who are probably, after all, a majority of Thames trout fishers. Our friends are persevering, but they persevere in the wrong way, contenting themselves by fishing the same water from morning to night, instead of working the bait far and near with constant change of tactics. The Thames trout is particularly cute, and is not such a fool as to be taken in by a little fish that is always twiddling at one place, in a strongly running current, yet never gets an inch forward. A good Thames man spins his bleak everywhere, steadily and naturally, into eddies, close to piles, under trees, near the banks. The glittering object is never at rest, but flutters hither and thither, covering new ground with every yard of advance.
* * * * * *
More through lack of opportunity than dislike, intention, or design, I have not, at least to the present time, enjoyed my full share of fishing from a punt, or in the river Thames. On the few occasions when I have sought it the experience has therefore been a little peculiar, like that of going to school to learn something. Together with the very proper keenness of the fisherman who wants to justify himself with the rod, there have been a spice of inquisitiveness, the wide open eye of inquiry, the sense of something not quite familiar, in such days as I have spent in a Thames punt. My acquaintance with barbel is also so limited that it counts for little. In a well-known barbel hole of the Kennet I fished in vain; once in April I caught a gravid specimen spinning for trout in a Thames weir; while spinning for pike I have hooked small barbel foul by the tail as they stood on their heads at the bottom of a mill pool when the wheel was stopped. This acquaintance, in fact, was intermittent and casual. But I bear in mind one day of close intimacy with the strong, sporting barbel; and on this March morning, when the windows are being bombarded with snow, hail, and sleet, making it, I trust, bad for the Zeppelins, I intend to lose myself in the impressions of that one instance of intimate terms with the fish. It must have been in late autumn, for I seem to hear a sad sobbing of wind from the elms, and a whispered dispersal of decayed leaves, loosened by recent white frosts.
I remember, too, that the professional fisherman, Hawkins, was very hopeful. He said his comrade, Jorkins, on the previous day, with two patrons from town, had had fine sport amongst the barbel, although the fish did not run particularly large, and he added that he had often known before, in previous years, a sudden eruption of cold weather sharpen the appetites of the fish and bring them on, as he termed it, headlong, for a fortnight or three weeks.
After all, there is something pleasant and soothing to the middle-aged and somewhat lazy man in sitting upon a Windsor chair in a punt, with pleasant objects to look at on either bank, with a tranquilly flowing stream between, and an occasional boat or barge moving up or down. The Castle, the familiar church, and the customary house-tops, were prominent features in the picture; and now and then the distant scream of a railway whistle and rumble of a train came in to save us from imagining that we were altogether in the country. Then, it is not disagreeable to the lazy man to have a fisherman (especially when it is a good handy man like Hawkins) fussing about, and handling the nasty baits, and making himself generally useful, as the deft-handed and willing professional so well knows how to do when afloat. All this, of course, was very well for a while. We looked round upon the prospect, and discussed it. We made inquiries of the fisherman as to whether the swallows had all departed for their winter quarters. We inquired who lived in yonder mansion, and heard a long tale about the owner having made money by inventing a wonderful kind of automatic blacking-brush.
As the story fizzled out, the leger lines having been down for some little time, I thought, and not without reason, that I saw the point of my rod trembling. Surely enough it was a bite, but, as Hawkins suggested (doubtless borrowing the pun from some bygone customer), it might have been an audacious dace. At any rate, the only result we achieved at that particular time was the necessity of affixing another lob-worm to the hook, and the casting out of the bulleted line again. This story, together with the hearty way in which Hawkins expressed his contempt for the patentee of the blacking-brush and his family, was so interesting and amusing that I looked at him instead of at my fishing rod; and as he at the same time looked at me, the position was left unguarded, and we were both of us recalled from the realms of scandal by a vigorous plunge of the rod-top. It was a sharp "knock," in fact, followed by a series of tugs, so violent that the rod rattled on the edge of the punt. There was no merit on my part in getting that barbel, for the fish had hooked himself, and had gone down stream at racing speed, before I could get command of him.
This, let me tell the young angler, is a dangerous position to be in. The handling of a rod under such circumstances, with a fine line like that with which you always ought to fish for barbel, requires great care. The tendency is to be over excited, and in the agitation of the moment one frequently commits the grave error of striking hard at a running fish. The result is obvious. With a fish going strongly away, and a man striking more strongly perhaps than he imagines in the contrary direction, it is almost a certainty that something or other will give way. However, an old stager at that kind of work gets out of the predicament without any loss, and after the usual resistance secures the fish. The battle was really fought about fifteen yards below the punt.
Why the barbel should choose that particular ground to try conclusions I am not aware. The water I know was deepest there, and, as I afterwards satisfied myself by plumbing, formed a saucer-like hollow, and there were also some obstructions about, of what nature I could not exactly make out. But I shrewdly suspect that there were either stakes or an ugly piece of wood, or some other object that would be dangerous to the line, and that the enemy went straight away for this, having probably tried the dodge successfully before, with the object of boring and boring until he parted from the hook that held him. A barbel is artful and apt to play games of this description, and it is prudent when you find a barbel making for a particular place and again returning to it after he has been brought away, to use every exertion compatible with safety to keep him away. This was not a large fish—something about 6 lb. or 7 lb.—and as he lay in the bottom of the punt for five or ten minutes after he had been turned out of the net, he certainly did present a striking picture of pale bronze colouring and comely shape.
A couple of hours passed by without either myself or my friend being fortified by a knock, and by that time we had run through the history of the occupants of every one of the country houses within view of the river at the place where we were pitched. It was now two o'clock in the afternoon, and the cold had increased. We discussed the possibilities, and both of us resigned ourselves to fate, deliberately arriving at a conclusion, almost in resolution form, that we were to have no more sport that day. Hawkins, however, would not hear of such a thing. He said the fish were there, and the fish would come on to bite sooner or later. Then he consulted us as to the advisability of shifting the position a little, and we agreed that if he could do so quietly perhaps it would be well to drop down so that the punt would be a little below rather than above the pollard willow.
This was done and with immediate effect, for our leger lines had scarcely reposed to their mission on the river's bed before both rods were wagging their heads. At one and the same time, and apparently keeping time, the tops of those rods told us that we might both expect a fish. We struck simultaneously; in unison we shouted "I've got him!" and we were each engaged with a fish that we knew to be not small. As a rule you prefer when in a punt to catch alternately with your friend; that is more like cricket, and indeed there is nothing more risky, unless both anglers are remarkably cool, than two lively fish being played in so small a space. Whether it is that they have a sympathy with each other, whether it is that the one suspects that he has got into trouble owing to some diabolical treachery on the part of the other and is out of temper; whether it is that they know all about it, and were taught in their childhood that fouled lines are generally broken lines, so much I know not; but be it in sea fishing or fresh water fishing, two fish hooked and struggling within sight by instinct often make towards each other.
This happened in our case. My fish was the smaller, and would have been the sooner played out if the barbel that my friend had on his hook would have allowed it; but just as I was winching in, with the intention of getting it into the net with all possible speed, my friend's fish made a deliberate dart to starboard, and the result was a foul. To have attempted playing them with our rods would have been ruin, therefore we dropped them, and by getting the two lines in my own hand and using them as one, I managed to haul in the brace of fish by sheer strength, and the somewhat novel feat was accomplished of getting into the landing net a 3-lb. and a 5-lb. barbel upon lines that were entangled. As our lines were of the fine Nottingham description, and the gut fine also, this was to say the least a piece of good fortune. There will, I know, be some reader who has been in the predicament here described, and I feel that he smiles at the thought of the fearful work of disentangling those clinging, wet, white, undressed silk lines. I will tell him. We cut them.
The shoal below took time to reflect upon the circumstance of which they had no doubt been witnesses, and we had no further touch of them for several minutes. Then they came on again with an inspiring regularity, distributing their favours alternately to myself and friend. For an hour a barbel came to net every five minutes; and there was no chance of loss, as the fish simply gulped at the worms and went off with them at once, and the hook had to be removed sometimes with a disgorger. In the very midst of the sport I thought I would make an experiment in the matter of baits. I had my own box of gentles. One, I suppose, never goes afloat or engages in any bottom fishing whatever without this reserve, if the maggots are in season. Hawkins also happened to have a small supply of stale greaves.
"Don't do it, mister!" Hawkins pleaded pathetically, when he saw me stringing on a bunch of gentles. "Leave well alone, mister! You carn't better the business, and you may change the luck if you don't stick to the lobs."
But I was obstinate, and was very glad that I tried the experiment. It was not the first time I had discovered that when the fish are really "on" they do not distinguish much between this and that bait. Even in fly fishing I have successfully tried the experiment, during a mad rise, of putting on a fly that was the most opposite I could find to what was on the water. The barbel took the gentles as freely as worms, and greaves as freely as gentles, but I noticed that the fish were smaller.
It will be concluded that our prowess on this occasion came somewhat into the slaughter zone. So at any rate it occurred to one of us as we landed, and in the grey mist spreading over land and water, saw the dead fish laid out decently and in order upon the grass. There were two dozen and one barbel, the largest 7 lb. and the smallest 3 lb., the average being about 4 lb. With a few accidental dace and chub thrown in, there would therefore be over a solid hundredweight of fish. Was this a thing to be proud of? Though I ask the question I do not answer it myself. We had enjoyed the outing and even the sport; we looked down upon the spoil with satisfaction, and if there was a sort of sense of shame at the back of the mind that was for analysis afterwards. Even as we pondered, perhaps to the degree of gloating, Hawkins was enumerating instances of much greater numbers taken by his customers. Yarrell records 280 lb. of large barbel in one day, and our old friend, the Rev. J. Manley, who preferred "a good day's leger-fishing for barbel to any other day's fishing within reach of ordinary or even extraordinary mortals," states that he took "thirty-seven fish one day on the Thames at Penton Hook, and there were several over 4 lb. and one nearly scaled 10 lb."
But these were the good, the great, the red letter days of a past time. The barbel is extremely capricious, abnormally so of late years in the Thames, and there are plenty of blanks to one fortunate day. There is, however, a fascination in barbel-fishing that is not a little surprising, and men have been known to boast aggressively that it is the only form of angling that appeals to them. It must be confessed that if the barbel is of poor esteem as food, he is the very gamest of the coarse fishes and a fighter to the last. His rushes are fierce and continuous; and as Providence has provided him with a decided snout, he bores downward with dogged persistence, relying apparently as much upon his classical barb appendages as upon his powerful tail for aid in time of trouble; and an infallible sign of his unconquerable spirit is the difficulty of bringing him into the net when he is close to it. There is not to my mind any fish that bolts so often when to all appearance played out.
The uncertainty of barbel and barbel fishing was illustrated by the sequel to our day on the Thames. Our adventures were told to the members of a certain society on the evening of our return, and no doubt they were envious, miserable, or glad as it might happen. We can only speculate as to that, but what can be told is that by the first trains next morning six brethren from different quarters of London went down and made their way to Hawkins. They had not whispered their intentions to one another, and looked rather sheepish as they stood in a cluster to receive the announcement from the fisherman's wife that H. was not at home. They looked a little more sheepish when they took boat to the pollard tree swim and found two very young gentlemen with Hawkins seated in a punt. But they smiled again on learning that there had not been a touch at either of the three lines, which had been out since daylight. That swim was diligently tried after our visit, but I had reason for knowing that not another barbel was taken there during the entire winter.
TWO RED LETTER SALMON
It is not often that the angling clubs which encourage prize-taking offer booby consolations for the smallest fish, but I have known exceptions, especially at the holiday competitions by the seaside. The biggest fish are another matter altogether. Sooner or later the world is bound to hear of them. And who dare say us nay? That man was not a fool who wanted to know, if you did not blow your own trumpet, who was to blow it? Blowing it need be neither boasting nor defiance. In this honest belief I shall try for a while to forget the butcher's bill in Flanders by recalling the capture of my biggest salmon, and that of a still bigger one by a friend during the same bygone back-end on Tweed, leaving the general memories of autumn days on the great Border river for future revival.
It was during Mr. Arthur N. Gilbey's tenancy of the Carham water, and he was, besides being my host, also the hero of the very best of the two salmon which are my text. He rented a country house overlooking the river, with the fishing, and no fortunate angler who sojourned under his roof in those good days can ever forget the puzzle into which he fell while deciding whether it was the gentle hostess or the ever-considerate host who most contributed to his happiness. Among the bright Carham remembrances no one will omit the after-breakfast descent of the steep-wooded brae down to the boat animated with eager anticipation, and the climbing home in the gloaming in whatever mood the events of the day had warranted.
The Carham fishing is really the lower and the southern section of Birgham, famous for its dub, the rival in piscatorial fame of Sprouston, a little higher up-stream. Its situation immediately above Coldstream and not far from Berwick makes it a characteristic water for the salmon fisher. The incoming fish sometimes linger there awhile early and late in the season, and men catch salmon at Carham while those in the higher beats are waiting their arrival or bewailing their disappearance. Here, too, you may hook your fish in Scotland and land it in England, for the Tweed begins to be the boundary between the two countries at Carham burn.